As those who follow my blog probably know, I’m currently on holiday in Nauplio, which is in Greece. Nauplio was once the capital city of modern Greece, and Kapodistrias was one of the heroes of that time. There are statues to him, and a street and a hotel named after him. He built two nations by diplomacy and not by war. Wholly admirable, I think you’ll agree!
Kapodistrias was born in Corfu, and educated in medicine and law. He initially practised as a physician. As a nobleman, he was invited to help govern a newly-formed federation of seven islands, which included Corfu, the Septinsular Republic.
There was strenuous opposition to the new Republic; vested interests were threatened. Kapodistrias won them over with his diplomatic skills, and his personal courage. He became Chief Minister of State, introducing a more liberal constitution, and invigorating the public sector, especially education.
The French took over the Septinsular Republic, and replaced the Senate. Kapodistrias eventually went to Russia and made a career in their diplomatic service. After four years he was sent as the unofficial Russian Ambassador to Switzerland. The Swiss Cantons were on the verge of civil war. Kapodistrias immersed himself in diplomacy, preparing draft constitutions, and negotiating with the Great Powers to guarantee Switzerland’s constitution and neutrality. In a very real way, he was the founder of modern Switzerland!
There was then a period when he served as joint Foreign Minister of Russia. He was repeatedly approached by groups promoting the cause of Greek independence, and he was forthright in his rejection of the idea. He repeatedly declined his support. When asked by the Tsar whether Russia should support the movement for Greek independence, he expressed support for the idea in theory, but advised against it in practical terms.
His hand was forced, though, when Prince Alexander Ypsilantis invaded Moldavia, with a view to provoking a revolt against the Ottomans throughout the Balkans. A contemporary account records that Kapodistrias was thunderstruck.
The revolution slowly succeeded in Greece, until they had a defensible territory. Despite his opposition to revolution, Kapodistrias was far and away the most illustrious Greek politician in Europe, and he was invited to become the first Governor of Greece. He was pessimistic about the chances of success, and said “Providence will decide, and it will be for the best.”
The building with the domed roof was the original Parliament of the Greeks.
Nevertheless, he travelled to Nauplio, the first capital city of modern Greece, and threw himself into the task. He established a currency, used his international prestige to raise loans for the nation, reformed agriculture, established educational institutions, all the time working sixteen or seventeen hours a day every day. It was as though he knew that his time was limited.
And, sure enough, on October 9th 1831, as he went to church, two assassins attacked him. The first bullet missed, and struck the wall of the church where the hole can be seen to this day. The second shot put a bullet through his head, and the other killer thrust a dagger into his heart. The assassins? Greek ‘war heroes’, whose vested interests had been compromised. Kapodistrias had known throughout his life the dangers of these interests. Personally I believe he knew it was only a matter of time before he was murdered, and had been working to his very limit to try and establish the Greek state.
The bullet hole in the wall of the Church of Saint Spirydon
And he succeeded. Greece stands, and is a part of the liberal European vision, which had always been Kapodistrias’s ideal.
Now, despite the astonishing achievement of founding two states that have survived to the present day, the murder of Kapodistrias feels rather downbeat as an ending for this post. I shall, instead, finish with a legend that exemplifies the way Kapodistrias worked.
He believed that the introduction of potatoes to Greece would raise the living standards of the poorest Greeks, and tried to hand them out to the local population. However, people were suspicious, and wouldn’t accept the potatoes. Kapodistrias then had the entire shipment unloaded onto the dock on public display, with soldiers guarding them. It wasn’t long before people started stealing the potatoes, with the guards turning a blind eye. Soon, the entire pile had been ‘stolen’ and the potato introduced into cultivation in Greece!